‘We’re going to need more counselors,’ educator says of growing mental health crisis among students

For students with mental health issues, the everyday challenges of school can become a hopeless struggle.

In Georgia, 85,000 students have a mental health need that’s not being addressed, according to a report from the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education. The Georgia Student Health Survey showed that almost 9 percent of Georgia’s sixth- through 12th-graders seriously contemplated suicide and 4 percent attempted it during the 2015-16 year.

“It’s a crisis when we have an increasing number of kids in the U.S. committing suicide and struggling,” said Jennifer Mellor, executive director of Bibb County’s program for exceptional children. “We’ve had kids who couldn’t come to school because their anxiety was so high. Students with depression have trouble getting out of bed. Mental health issues can affect not just their mood but their output, their friendships, their desire to participate.”

Schools are putting more focus on the “whole child,” and that includes mental health. Evaluation of students’ mental health begins in the classroom, Mellor said.

Teachers identify kids who are struggling, and then school psychologists, counselors or social workers work with the students and connect parents with community resources and support, said Mellor and Monica Smith, Houston’s student services coordinator and lead counselor.

“It all starts with the teachers,” Mellor said. “At home, Mom and Dad may not notice. But at school, your teachers are generally the first line to see (the issues).”

One social worker is recommended for every 250 students and one psychologist for every 1,000 students, but Georgia’s ratios are one to 2,742 and one to 2,475, according to the Voices for Georgia’s Children. Out of the state’s 159 counties, 76 don’t have a licensed psychologist and 52 don’t have a licensed social worker.

Smith said it’s a state funding issue and not a local decision. The state allows each school system a certain number of psychologists based on student population, Mellor said. Bibb County has 10 psychologists and 8 social workers for its 24,000 students. Houston has 10 psychologists and nine social workers for 29,000 students, Smith said.

“We’re going to need more counselors,” Mellor said. “It’s hard to attract people into the field of social work or school psychology. If we continue to grow beyond 8 percent (suicide rate), what then when we don’t have the resources in the area?”

Educators in both the Bibb and Houston districts have gone through the state Department of Education’s Youth Mental Health First Aid program, which identifies warning signs in students and intervention methods. Mellor said there will be even more training from the state next year.

“We’re not trained to diagnose. It’s just mainly assessing the student and getting them the help that they need,” Smith said.

Bibb’s teachers know the suicide and abuse hotlines and how to combat bullying, Mellor said. Smith said Houston’s counselors have gone through suicide prevention training, and teachers learn about suicide awareness every year.

“We have to train people who work with young adults how to use the schools to the best of their ability to help these kids,” she said.

Children who have positive relationships with adults are more likely to reach out if they’re in trouble, Mellor said. Yet, 22 percent of students who took the Georgia Student Health Survey said they didn’t know an adult they could turn to. Smith said the Houston district works hard to ensure each student has a bond with an adult educator.

Programs like the Leader in Me and Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports help create those relationships, focus on what kids are doing right, and teach students how to “process life as a kid,” Mellor said. Bibb is using the Leader in Me character education program in four schools and plans to gradually add it to all its schools.

PBIS is being implemented in more than 50 counties in the state, and more are starting it this year, according to the GPEE report. Bibb has incorporated the program into all its schools, and Houston County plans to add it to 10 of its schools each year until it’s district-wide in 2020, according to a previous Telegraph article.

Houston counselors work with small groups of students and show them how to cope with issues they’re struggling with. Many of the district’s schools also have peer conflict resolution sessions where classmates help each other solve problems, Smith said.

Some Bibb schools have program like Caring Adults in the Building and Teachers as Advisers that connect students with adult mentors, Mellor said.

“Every year, everything changes. The way (students) respond to things is different than 10 years ago. We’ve had to rethink how we think about situations,” Smith said.